“Imagine the terror felt by the child who has come to understand through repeated punishments that one’s gaze can be dangerous. The child who has learned so well to look the other way when necessary. Yet, when punished, the child is told by the parents, ‘Look at me when I talk to you’. Only, the child is afraid to look. Afraid to look but fascinated by the gaze. There is power in looking.”
bell hooks, in ‘The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators’, in Thornham, S (1999) Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999 pp.115-131, p115.
It is good to have friends. Especially those friends who are understanding about creative impulses, the desire to express in words something that can only be seen and felt and whose houses have large windows that they don’t mind you slapping a load of poster paint all over them and will even provide cups of hot peppermint tea. True friendship indeed. So it was that I turned up at a friends house, poster paints and dog in tow to create some noise. Having previously been a watercolour, pencil and Sharpie woman I was excited to use a new medium. After washing down all the windows we (my friend, her daughter and myself) began to create. I started off by outlining one of my favourite quotations by Audre Lorde ( https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf).
“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”
The harsh but strong truth that lies behind the saying and the essay it came from is reminiscent of other caribbean proverbs that I use on a daily basis to inform my waking life. ‘Alligator lay egg, but ‘I’m not fowl’ is a particular favourite of mine and is a cautionary tale for those who prefer to believe only what they are told rather than finding out for themselves. On the theme of alligators is another saying I like – ‘Alligator shouldn’t call hog long mout’ a saying that can apply to us all at some point in our lives.
With no plan in mind other than to see what poster paint can do on glass I sketched in words and figures. Problem number one appeared, the outline done in water based pen was too weak. Repeatedly going over the work didn’t cause greater strength in line – it just caused smudging and a blurring I did not want. Second problem became clear on opening the poster paints – there was no brown. White, yes, green, blue, yellow, red and black but no brown. Not brave enough to start mixing primary colours together I shrugged my shoulders and began to paint. Brushes ranged from sponges to my own collection of watercolour paintbrushes.
My trademark of stories within stories began to show some of the limitations of using poster paint. The positives were the ability to create movement and texture in a way not easily recreated in Sharpie but the whole was too disjointed, the important inner narrative was lost and although fun to do the colouring was all wrong.
I didn’t want ethereal. I didn’t want to recreate a lifeless stained glass where the viewer already knows the story and thus comes to the reading with their perceptions, judgments and preconditioning intact. My drawn figures embody their pain, they or the landscapes reveal their suffering and mix this with the richness that comes form loving, hoping, and caring despite what we have been given. My work is grounded in reality even if it does hide sometimes behind a layer of imaginative landscaping.
Thus, poster paint had to go. Remembering that
‘ebry day a fishing day but no every day fe ketch fish
(reward does not necessarily follow the amount of work you put into something) it was time for a rethink. This was not a time to panic, after all, the painting session had been lots of fun and we had learnt about the weakness and strengths of poster paint on windows (something I would like to return too). Not all was lost. But this is when the inner critic began to growl. Whispering its toxic thoughts it sought a reaction of panic, of belittling, of the desire for perfection.
It is at times like this that I really do believe that we have a choice. A choice over how we decide to react to a situation. So whilst I felt the cry to abandon all hope, to declare my self stupid and a failure, I choose instead to reflect on what I had achieved for myself and for my friends. Her windows had been cleaned – free of charge – two generations had bonded over a shared project that had emancipation as its goal, we had listened to each other and tried new things in a supported way.
These were things to be celebrate.
Yes, I also had to rethink what I was going to do, but I was going to do it in a way that understands that failure can be a good thing, something not to be afraid or ashamed about, after all,
it is never wise to hang you clothes all pan one nail!’
My original idea was to fill up a large window in an unoccupied shop in Leeds city centre.
Having knocked around in Leeds for over 40 years I hate seeing empty shops. They become a hole in the high streets, filling up with the detritus of indifferent passers-by and corners overflow with old or soiled newspapers, empty cans, the odd street hardened pigeon, and in one case, a mans shoe with no laces, all items quietly creating mini mountains in the doorways.
As time passes by the windows become opaque, smeared with grime and dirt and all semblance of what was becomes a dirty shell. But more than this, empty shops become a fragmented mirror, reflecting the despair, despondency and emptiness that lies at the heart of our go-getting, got to achieve at all costs, ever so modern capitalist society (in my humble opinion). As a lover of graffiti and quirky tags I asked if I could use an empty shop window to create a huge message board with quotations from black British music, poetry, narratives, and Caribbean proverbs. I would display a range of curvaceous figures wrapped in skin ranging from blue black to my own weak latte. Afro, corn rows, goddess braids, weaves, shaved heads and natural hair would adorn the heads of the women and out of their mouths would flow facts and stories about black living, past and present. After all, black people have lived in Britain since the Roman occupation and the main protagonist of Christianity – Jesus – was neither white nor English (sorry folks, no pale skin, blonde hair or blue eyes on the Son of God. Jesus was a black man and he was Dread).
This was the plan and I could see it in my minds eye. The unloved windows would be washed before use (mental list: washing up liquid, bottle of water, bucket and sponge), all dried down with old towels (check airing cupboard, ask around friends and see if they have any rags spare) and then I would have my list of Caribbean proverbs and stories, influential black and mixed heritage poets and writers, Jackie Kay, Bernardine Evaristo, Jean Binta Breeze, Patience Agababi, Merle Collins, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Kelly Brown Douglas, Karen Baker Fletcher, Dorothea Smartt, E R Braithwaite, John Agard, David Dabydeen, Paul Gilroy, Anthony Reddie, Robert Beckford, David Olusoga to name a few, and believe me, the list could carry on for pages.
I will create a small, but significant space, full of colours and contrast using poster paint, I enthused to the Love Arts person. A space where black and mixed heritage peoples could walk by and say “that’s part of me” and “I am included in a canon of songs and words that speak aloud about my issues, my problems, my weights that hang low around my neck and it is here in Leeds, in art, through word and in deed and I am valued and legitimised.
My shop front would not be fitted into a convenient corner of a library, university, school or museum and would be more than a collection of objects brought out each year for Black History Month with the leftovers of someone’s spit as they dusted it off with a part-used tissue in preparation for the weeks celebration of things that need to be included so boxes can be ticked and privilege and righteousness restored. Instead, I rejoiced into the telephone, it will be a celebration of the spirit that makes a way out of no way (https://nmaahc.si.edu/making-way-out-no-way) . For when you continually crush a people you also crush the soul, that part that craves to be whole and connected with the deity of your choice and to each other as a living construct through love. When you live in a racist society, believe me, you learn how to make a way around, through, above and below the indifference, arrogance and othering that goes on.
Armed with my overflowing notebook holding between the pages those quotations that are not etched in my heart, I would set out, on my tod, into Leeds town centre with cleaning materials in one hand and a box of cheap poster paint from Wilko’s and some old paintbrushes in the other.
I was prepared to clean up Leeds town centre and make it a place where blackness is visible, celebrated and safe.
What went wrong? Well, it turns out it is just not that simple. Empty shops are a magnet for rats and other vermin. They can be used by homeless people either as places to rest or as toilets so I might need more than a bucket of water and washing up liquid. The shops might not be structurally sound, I couldn’t be left alone in the shop to paint without someone there for insurance reasons. Landlords can be tricky … the list went on and my ideas began to crumble. As a woman who prides herself on thinking most things through to at least three points ahead I just hadn’t thought of the practicalities of inhabiting an empty shop to make art. Also, the co-ordinator patiently explained, there is the issue of getting the art work off the surfaces, as landlords might not appreciate political art work prominently and permanently etched on their windows.
I was told that there are a couple of shops who willingly hand over their shop window for the duration of the exhibition but, and this was heavily emphasised, it can’t be permanent ink and I have to be aware of where the shop is situated. So no Sharpies (one of my main art tools) and no vaginas or breasts if the window was going to be in a family friendly place. Used to compromising (you soon learn as a black child in a white-led environment that when a black person doesn’t compromise you are quickly labelled as ungrateful, angry, ignorant, violent, and a threat to society) I quickly did a re-think. The poster paint could stay (easy to wash off, cheap and readily available) and I would just work in one of the friendly shops that Love Arts already has links with.
So having put in a proposal of what I wanted to do (draw lots and lots of black and mixed heritage female forms interspersed with black and African American narratives, phrases, stories and proverbs); why I thought it needed to be done (to create spaces for dialogue and education surrounding black British achievements and raise some of the issues facing mixed heritage identities in Leeds); and how I intended doing it (erm, give me a window and I will bring the poster paint and off we go) I sat back and forgot about it for a couple of weeks.
Now I am a very visual person and I am aware that this blog post has all been text based. The reason for this, in case you like me have never written a blog before, is it takes so long to do especially when you worry that the words might be the wrong ones, the phrasing might be too convoluted, and of course, what if someone hates all this and shatters my carefully constructed barricade. In order to speed the process along I am not going to censure myself as much and just get the words down so hopefully future posts will become more frequent and I will have more time to put in pictures of things that worked and things that went wrong – and I have a lot of both.
In the next post I will reveal the journey I went on with poster paint and how it looked like it would work – really it did, and show you how and why it didn’t with examples. I will start talking about the proverbs I am going to include in the final piece and what they mean and why I have included them . But for now this is enough and I am going to publish this without spending two hours proofreading and instead, I am going to use the time to walk the dog. If you have any questions or requests around the quotations or issues I have mentioned then please feel free to get in touch. In the meantime – take care.
The theme of the Love Arts this year is Connect. In one way connect-ing is a fundamental part of what it is to be human, thus, we connect with other animals (including human beings), to nature, to the past, ideology, even to inanimate objects (in my case my iPad and my favourite 5B pencil) but other times to connect and to be connected can be very difficult.
According to the Oxford Dictionary to connect is to
‘Bring together or into contact so that a real or notional link is established’.
When you have no words to articulate your thoughts or feelings for that day it becomes harder to connect with either yourself or with others. A permanent gap is outlined in indelible ink, sometimes in a hidden place on your body, other times it is written clearly across your face. Somedays I crave connections as if I were a man whose beard was on fire seeks a pond, to reuse an old proverb.
Themes of connect-ing and connect-ion in my art work are extremely important but so too is the lack of connection. Therefore in my sketches, drawn on a napkin or back of a receipt, I will draw the person staring into their own memories or lost in list making. In doodles done in cafes or waiting rooms I watch and draw people waiting for news – tensed against bad news, daring not to hope for good. In cafes I watch and draw those who wait for others to make them feel loved, inadequate or incomplete. I then place these figures floating through or against physical, emotional or mental landscapes, awash with malformed creatures, local flowers and the tang of a post-industrial civilisation. The figures struggle against what is considered to be normal and acceptable.
My figures, usually female and ageing as am I, have long since given up trying to fit into what is generally and openly considered to be the normalcy of British society – that is, white, male and middle-class.
As the African American poet and commentator Audre Lorde wrote in Sister Outsider (1984)
“Revolution is not a one time event”
so too revolution, in my work, repeatedly questions, interrogates, critiques and sometimes, lingers. Revolutionary emotions, thoughts, understandings and questions appear as loud bold pen or pencil strokes, with colours that demand to be heard, images that shock or intrigue are laid against a local or imagined landscape. Creating visual tidal-waves using colour and imagery in spaces that are well known create splinters into the fortified well of conscious and unconscious bias.
In my work both landscapes and figures reflect the individual and the collective wounds made by a society and government that proposes whiteness as the norm.
But sometimes the revolution is quiet – soft watercolour washes over the frames of heavy limbed women, arms, necks and legs twisting with the weight of dealing with a society that considers blackness to be less than normal, where woman are still paid less than men, where binaries determine the thoughts, actions and deeds of others and, of course, where atonement is given to prime ministers who can connect with pigs in a way understood to others as immoral but black youths are picked off the streets in ‘random’ police checks and sent to prisons far more than their white counterparts.
My work is deliberately created to force myself as well as the viewer, to reveal our own blindness, to confront our own bias, and to acknowledge our privilege. Sometimes this is shown through the use of colour and shape with angles and disjointed images as a way of articulating the violent cacophony of rage, pain and disconnection that is felt.
But to only focus on this aspect would be to misunderstand the internal complexity and content of the black and mixed heritage peoples living in Britain. To be black, mixed heritage and female in Britain is to hold within yourself a multiplicity of factors, some competing, some oppositional and others that merely hang around the fringes.
Whereas violent articulation might, quite rightly, demand atonement, it can also articulate other emotions and aspects of living under a racist and unequal society. Whilst internal and external revolutions can be violent, aggressive, fear and hatred filled events they can also be strong and quiet. After-all water wears down stone in a way that dynamite could never do. Thus, in my work you will find landscapes that appear soothing and flowing but look more closely and you will find the dead body of a wild and unkempt Ophelia carried along by the oncoming tides of ignorance, and overt discrimination. Yet in another picture you will find a defiant Medusa, her hair matted to dreadlocks by the water that both drowns and holds her up at the same time. Both figures exist in landscapes that are imaginary and local, from the back-to-back terraces of Burley with spices and shade – two of the many things to breathe in when shopping in Burley, to the clammer and noise of young, newly freed adults trying to please others, and, be accepted in the sensation seeking activities for new students in Hyde Park in September to the vastness of deep grey skies of Whitby in mid December.
To receive an email addressed to ‘the Artist’ is a moment of awe, of wonder and also of sheer terror. The always present voice of doubt and indecision whispers ‘but you can’t be an artist – you just draw a bit when you are bored, waiting for appointments, annoyed, happy, sad, and of course, confused. That’s not what artists do. Artists create, they explode onto the scene with accompanying thrills and fanfare’.
Of course, this is not true but since when has truth ever mattered to the confusion that is my brain. So here I am. A dyslexic Arts and Minds Supported Artists and you, dear reader, are my audience. So please excuse any spelling mistakes or curious turns of phrasing. My mind is a chaotic jumble of thoughts, experiences, holes, and an insatiable curiosity to find out how this damn world ticks.
Hopefully my musings will highlight both practical and philosophical issues. I will look at how I create my work and the ideas and thoughts behind the symbols used and the way symbols can be twisted, fractured and rediscovered as well as how one goes from a good idea written in a proposal to creating a piece of art that will be made and exhibited in Leeds Museum.
I will explain how the idea was to originally use poster paints (an art medium I have never used) which proved sadly incapable of revealing light, colour and pattern in my work to decisions surrounding which type of Sharpie is good for permanently marking acrylic, to where exactly does one get a sodding great piece of cheap clear plastic and then how to sweet talk the bus driver into letting you onto a Metro bus without breaking the bus, the perspex or your fellow passengers.
I will explore and share my inspirations and fascinations as the work progresses and will reveal how Henry Moore’s Reclining Woman, who lies languid and silent outside Leeds art gallery, became a particular issue for me and how this once loved icon is re-read and re-imagined, from my black mixed heritage feminist understanding, to reclaim her as a Black Power feminist icon for Leeds.
My new exploration of images using embroidery, a new phase for me, will also be posted as well as the more familiar and known images using pen and ink. The embroidery out of a love of contrariness and things you can’t quite control as needle and thread, in my hands at least, refuse to conform to the ways of pen and paper leads to the expression of new emotions and thoughts.
As for the philosophical? Well, the philosophical aspect happens any and every time we give in to our curiosity and ask ‘why?’ and I shall be doing that a lot.